January 30
Reuters/Joshua Roberts
Reuters/Joshua Roberts

One percenter paranoia is officially out of control: that’s the only possible conclusion from l’affaire Perkins. In case you missed it, that was the story wherein a doddering old gazillionaire wrote a letter to the editor at the Wall Street Journal comparing liberal concern over inequality with the Nazi’s Kristallnacht.

He later went on TV to clarify his remarks, and though he said he regretted using the word “kristallnacht” he ultimately doubled down on the analogy: “When you start to use hatred against a minority it can get out of control.” Which is true, especially when one is a Jew in a fascist dictatorship run by an crazed anti-Semite. But for American plutocrats, who have almost never had such power as they do now, such an idea is so straightforwardly preposterous, so historically ignorant, and so frankly paranoid that any person who believes such a thing is clearly beyond convincing.

But this one percenter paranoia goes much further than Perkins. He’s only the tip of the iceberg; similar sentiments are more widely shared among the plutocracy than you might expect. Ben White has a decent straight reporting piece digging into the phenomenon over at Politico. And Josh Marshall has a more in-depth explanation at TPM:

The sheer scale of the difference means they live what is simply a qualitatively different kind of existence. That gulf creates estrangement and alienation, and one of a particular sort in a democracy where such a minuscule sliver of the population can’t hope to protect itself alone at the ballot box…[Before 2008], celebration of wealth and the wealthy has been near the extreme end of…American history…Mix it with the need to run to the political class hat in hand and that ocean of animus from the public at large…

It is that mix of insecurity, a sense of the brittleness of one’s hold on wealth, power, privileges, combined with the reality of great wealth and power, that breeds a mix of aggressiveness and perceived embattlement.

I had originally suspected (or hoped) that the WSJ had published Perkins’ letter as a kind of public service. A kind of “you see? some very rich people hold troubling beliefs!” But nope, it turns out the paper basically agrees, and published a whole editorial arguing that the left-wing irritation at being compared to the most evil genocidal fascist regime in history just proves Perkins right! They actually entitled their editoral “Perkinsnacht.” I’m not making this up.

The larger problem here is not just one of rhetoric or economic justice. Nations function best when their elites feel as though they have some responsibility and connection to their society. I don’t think it’s romanticizing the past to believe that such people used to feel such a connection – just look at George Romney. Some members of today’s economic elite, by contrast, feels comfortable literally comparing themselves to European Jews in 1938. With the resources such people have at their command, such paranoia is deeply unsettling.

Economic inequality is creating an elite which, though it is the wealthiest that has ever existed, has ever less attachment to or understanding of the society in which they live. This doesn’t bode well for American democracy.